It hit me this week like a Louisville Slugger upside the head that the biggest winner of Roger Clemens’s federal perjury trial besides the Rocket and his homespun, unctuous attorney, Rusty Hardin, was none other than Barry Lamar Bonds.
Clemens’s acquittal Monday on all six charges of perjury, obstruction of Congress, and making false statements was a yet another home run for baseball’s ersatz home run king, 762*, a number that has as much significance now as the count of calories in a bag of Cheetos.
You see, Clemens and Bonds are now a package item when it comes to admission to the Hall of Fame. They comprise a two-for-one (Faustian) bargain of presumed performance-enhancing drug users. To permit one to enter the sacred halls of Cooperstown without the other would be the height of hypocrisy by Hall voters.
Just as Clemens and Bonds can’t be separated from the steroid era in which they played, their Hall of Fame candidacies can’t be separated.
Bonds always had a more boorish and off-putting act than Clemens, who still has a lot of friends in this town, but they’re both megalomaniacal, mendacious, and among the best to ever play the game. The differences are that one was a pitcher and one was a hitter, and that one is white and one is black. That’s it.
In the wake of Clemens’s exculpation, the sentiment has been that although few believe Clemens is telling the truth about not using PEDs, there is now a path for him to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame. It won’t be next year, when Clemens and Bonds are both on the ballot for the first time, and it might not be for a few years with the likes of Frank Thomas (2014), Pedro Martinez (2015), Randy Johnson (2015), and Ken Griffey Jr. (2016) coming on the ballot.
But unless voters decide to apply a universal just-say-no stance to any ostensible steroid or human growth hormone users, the Hall call will probably happen for Clemens. And so it should for Bonds, as well.
Bonds was also the focus of a federal trial. The Giants slugger admitted to using substances called the “cream’’ and the “clear’’ but maintained he didn’t know they were steroids.
He testified before a grand jury in 2003 that he thought the substances were a pain-relieving cream and flaxseed oil - a fib bigger than Bonds’s humongous head. Bonds was convicted on a charge of obstruction of justice last year and sentenced to a whopping 30 days of home confinement.
Making the case that there is a difference between Clemens and Bonds when it comes to the Hall of Fame because one is a convicted felon and the other isn’t is the splitting of intellectual hairs. It’s voters passing off their responsibility to federal jurors.
Being a better liar, having a better lawyer, or facing a less credible accuser doesn’t make you a more deserving Hall of Famer.
I would put both Clemens and Bonds in the Hall of Fame. They’re in a different class than Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, and Sammy Sosa, players who would be Hall of Famers solely because of their admitted or test-revealed PED use.
McGwire had one Hall of Fame skill, power, and it was enhanced, perhaps created, by steroids. The old Big Mac would floss his teeth with the post-career version of McGwire.
PED peddler-turned-whistle-blower Jose Canseco played his first full season in Texas in 1993, a teammate of Palmeiro’s. From that point, Palmeiro, who tested positive for steroids in 2005, averaged 36 homers per season and ended his career with more home runs than Ted Williams, Willie McCovey, Mickey Mantle, and Reggie Jackson.
Sosa, who tested positive for a performance-enhancer in 2003, juiced himself and his bats to reach the sacred 600-home run plateau, ending up with more 60-homer seasons (3) than anyone in history. Before 1998 there had been two 60-homer seasons in the history of baseball.
Clemens didn’t accumulate a record seven Cy Young awards or 354 wins or 4,672 strikeouts purely on Texas work ethic. Bonds, who had never hit 50 homers in a season before he slugged a record 73 in 2001, is an arriviste heir to Henry Aaron’s home run throne.
But both players have a timeline of greatness that predated PED accusations.
Clemens won 192 games, three Cy Young Awards, four earned run average titles, and an MVP award during his 13 seasons with the Red Sox. He finished second in the American League Cy Young voting in 1990, when he lead the majors with a 1.93 ERA. He led the American League and/or the majors in shutouts five times between 1987 and 1992.
Even if Dan Duquette was right and Clemens was in the twilight of his career in 1996, a few more 10-win seasons and Clemens was Cooperstown-bound.
According to the book “Game of Shadows,’’ it wasn’t until after the 1998 home run fraud perpetrated by McGwire and Sosa that an envious Bonds began using steroids. At that point, he was already a three-time MVP, an eight-time Gold Glove winner, and the only member of the 400-400 club (411 homers and 445 stolen bases).
I believe Clemens and Bonds cheated, but they cheated history more than their contemporaries, many of whom were also ’roiding up during a disgraceful era of baseball.
Before and after any chemical enhancement, Bonds and Clemens were among the greatest players of their generation. They’ve left voters with the unenviable task of parsing how much of their accomplishments were based on God-given ability and how much resulted from modern chemistry.
Drawing that distinction is a worthy pursuit, but separating the Hall of Fame candidacies of Bonds and Clemens is not.